Last night I finally got around to watching Akira Kurosawa’s film Dersu Uzala. The film is based on the memoirs of V. Arseniev, a Russian explorer, and is basically a love letter to the title character, an indigenous hunter who served as a guide for Arseniev’s expeditions.
So, what does this film have to do with old-school wilderness exploration and hex crawling? Check it out:
Captain Arseniev’s mission in the movie is to MAP an unexplored wilderness area—probably one of the last such areas in the world in the early 1900s. Their ultimate goal is to map the area around a lake, but in game terms, they never really know what’s going to be in the next hex.
So, what did I take away from this awesome true-story example of a hexcrawl?
Random encounters, not necessarily in film order:
--A bear—no wait, it’s Dersu, an indigenous hunter.
--A cabin or hut. Someone stayed here recently, but who?
--Pit traps set up by Chinese bandits. Roll to see what’s in them: dead animals, live animals—on a 1 you fall in the pit.
--Men captured by Chinese bandits, tied up, left to die.
--Chinese bandits—no wait, they’re actually fighters who are looking for the bandits.
--An old Chinese hermit who fled into the mountains 40 years ago after his brother stole the woman he loved.
--Another tiger—but is it real, a spirit being, or a hallucinatory symbol of your fear of the forest?
--Lots and lots of tracks.
—Mmm, what’s that smell? An indigenous family frying fish in their home. Will they let you have some?
—A twig tied into a circle and hung on a tree branch. What does it mean? (Answer: “don’t bother looking for ginseng here”)
Other things that can happen, again not in film order:
--Various factors necessitate splitting the party.
--Oh shit, we’re lost.
--A freezing-cold windstorm, and the sun is low in the sky. We’ll die unless we can cut down all this wild grass and make a shelter before nightfall.
--Building a raft in order to cross a body of water.
--Dersu’s stuck in the river but oh shit, we used all the rope for that raft.
--People who speak different languages and have different cultures and beliefs. Can you communicate with them?
--I like the idea of random encounters that are ambiguous and not necessarily what they seem at first glance. Are those tracks really what they look like? Is that sound a bear or a person? What’s that smell? Of course, this shouldn't be overdone or used to dick with the players.
--Resource management is really important, obviously, and necessitates hard choices.
--It’s cool to see the captain carrying around his surveying gear, drawing maps, and keeping a log.
--Despite all the cool hexcrawlish elements, what really makes the story compelling is the relationship between Captain Arseniev and Dersu. In OSR games you have no mechanical way to model this kind of relationship; players might or might not roleplay it, since there is no incentive in the rules.